Running Is Too White. It Doesn’t Have to Be.

We need to make running accessible — and safe — for non-White Americans

Photo: RunPhoto/Getty Images

Thanks to the pandemic, I haven’t met up for runs with my cross-country team lately. But when we were all in the same locker room, a look around made one thing clear: Except for one or two teammates, everyone else was White.

As is the rest of the running world.

Of course, some of the most successful runners in the world are not White; athletes in Ethiopia and Kenya reign supreme at events beyond 400 meters on the track and tend to dominate the world of long-distance running. In track and field, any events 800 meters and less are not as White and more accessible and representative of American demographics.

The world of running being “too White” particularly pertains to the West and primarily in recreational running. It’s the world I grew up in and the world I currently know. A quick look through LetsRun’s popular forums finds that confronting the Whiteness of running breeds a lot of hostility.

People continuously post questions like these:

  • “Why is something being white a bad thing?”
  • “Why are people bringing up the ‘whiteness’ of running ‘leftist trolls?’”

The comments quickly bring up racist tropes around crime, welfare, laziness, unemployment, and a lot worse. Sure, the anonymity of LetsRun (and the internet at large) gives keyboard bullies license to make more bigoted comments, but reading through only reinforces the notion that distance running isn’t accessible — or isn’t perceived as such — to a significant portion of our population. And we won’t get many people of color on the roads and trails if they don’t feel safe.

Omnipresent in our national consciousness over the past two weeks has been the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who in February was killed by two White men while jogging through a residential neighborhood outside of Savannah, Georgia. A viral video of the attack shows Gregory McMichael and his son, Trevor McMichael, trailing Arbery, engaging in a confrontation, and finally firing a shotgun at the man.

The entire world witnessed the last moments of Arbery’s life. The harrowing video was condemned across the political spectrum, even by arch-conservative figures like Donald Trump and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. Arbery’s father called it a modern-day lynching.

For many people of color, Arbery’s death presents a stark reality of the dangers of running while Black. Arbery’s death is the worst that could happen; it sends the message that Black lives are not valued.

Ideally, running should be some sort of equalizer. It’s not a very financially restrictive sport to get into — the only thing you need is a reliable pair of running shoes. ​But it’s not that simple. To be a runner, you need a safe place to run, the free time required to run, and adequate food in the fridge.

Running has done a lot for me. Most of my friends, to this day, are runners. I know runners to be the toughest, most welcoming, loyal, and kindest people I’ve ever met, not only in racing and performance but in their devotion to teammates. I would not be the person I am without running and the community it provides. Yet all but a couple of my running friends are White. The solution lies in making the world of distance running more accessible to everyone.

I can only speak from personal experience, but the places with large running communities tend to center in the suburbs or gentrified areas of cities. I don’t just read about residential segregation in academia: I live and see it every day, teaching in an inner-city school with a single White kid in a student body of about 350. I can’t quite put my finger on what’s so wrong with the fact that segregation happens in a much more covert manner, but I can say that it’s not suitable for making running accessible — and safe — for non-White Americans. Real success comes in a grassroots way. Coaches across the country can encourage more students of color to try distance events, not just middle or short distance events.

Just because running is easier to enter as a sport doesn’t mean that the running community can’t do more to extend its benefits — whether physical and mental health or a supportive community — to all.

I’ve brought up this issue with my running friends, from trusted mentors to friends to old teammates. They mostly say that while recreational running is a White sport, its inaccessibility isn’t as egregious as many other sports that require expensive equipment or dedicated areas, like golf, tennis, cycling, or skiing. But just because running is easier to enter as a sport doesn’t mean that the running community can’t do more to extend its benefits — whether physical and mental health or a supportive community — to all.

The sport has so much good to offer that it should break racial and socioeconomic barriers. Why doesn’t it?

Nearly a decade ago in Runners World, journalist Jay Jennings reported on the ingrained stereotypes, institutional complacency, and cultural resistance that help running remain so White. A theme that emerged early in the piece was the importance of representation, the feeling of possibility that comes with seeing yourself in other runners. Two of the piece’s subjects, Ashley Hicks and Toni Carey, created the organization Black Girls RUN! (BGR!) to address just that need. When Carey decided to start running, she says, her mother told her, “Well, Black people don’t run” — now BGR! now has chapters in more than 40 cities.

Of course, distance running’s diversity problem is not going to change overnight. But there are a lot of things the running industry — and runners themselves — can do better to increase diverse participation in running. If you’re anything like me, ​you’re just someone who likes to run. The running world being too White isn’t something I think about all the time, but it bothers me when I do.

A little effort from all of us goes a long way. If you’re a White runner, try not to be the person who says, “I’m colorblind. I’m not racist, and it’s not my problem.” After all, no one can be blind to race, and no one can honestly say they don’t have any biases. We need to be more self-aware. In my self-awareness, I know that I’m just as biased as the next person when I walk through a high-crime area and lock my car a few times more than I usually would.

As individual runners, we can do the work. Invite non-White friends and co-workers to start running with you. If you have access to a car, give your friends a ride to go running with you. And if the fact that your entire locker room is White or most of your running friends are White unsettles you, don’t just sit on that feeling. Do something about it.

If the effort to diversify running is anything like running a marathon itself, it’s not going to be easy. It will be messy, painful, and require grit and determination. But every step counts — because otherwise, there’s no end to the status quo.

Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of “The Wire.” Email: ryanfan17@gmail.com. Support me: ko-fi.com/ryanfan

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